My daughter and I began watching this Britbox series last week: Living the Dream, about an English family locating to Florida to run an RV park, full of eccentric characters. The show only had a short run of two abbreviated seasons and doesn’t seem to have racked up much awareness but we have enjoyed it immensely, because of the ‘fish out of water’ aspect, and because all the characters, even just the secondary characters appear to have lives of their own, and are quirky and endearing.  I don’t know if it’s because the writing for the series is intelligent, funny, and mostly avoided making vicious caricatures of Americans, the South, and Floridians generally, although given every opportunity to do so.  There really aren’t any big name stars among the cast, either, although most seem to have had long and relatively unspectacular careers playing character roles in various TV series in the US and Britain; solid professionals, every one, who appeared to to have enjoyed themselves enormously filming on location in Florida.

This brought on some thoughts about how certain TV series and movies manage to give us the impression that even minor characters have fully-rounded lives – that they are just not walking on for the sake of supplying lines or plot points to the main characters. Some small quirk or quality hints at that aspect. I don’t know if it can be attributed to the screenwriting, or perhaps the skill of the actor in coming up with little bits of business that establish that individuality even in a small part, but it is there in some movies and shows, and absent in others. The first time I was made aware of this was in one of the extra features to a recent DVD of Breakfast at Tiffany’s; an examination of the crowded party scene in Holly Golightly’s apartment. One of the extras involved explained how long it took to film that scene and dropped the information that all the bit players involved had worked out all kinds of mini-dramas, played out as the camera glided past. Not just the party scene, but this also held out for the staff of the on-screen Tiffany’s; one had the sense that each person there had a life with a lot going on in it … but there was just this quick interaction with the customers, posing a slight interruption of that life.

In a way, this kind of creative character-building is right up my alley, what with the cast of characters in the Luna City series. With forty or more minor characters, who rotate in an out of focus, there is so much scope for making them individual by telling a story focused on an aspect of their life, present and past. It’s a heck of a lot easer with an omnibus epic like Luna City – giving small characters their own lives.

29. June 2023 · Comments Off on The Murder of a Very Modern Major General · Categories: Old West, Random Book and Media Musings

This post was inspired by a terse note next to a picture of the gentleman in question, on a page in one of my reference books – a note that the Confederate commander, one Major General Earl Van Dorn was murdered in mid-campaign, in his HQ in Spring Hill, Tennessee by an outraged husband. A personal thing, not an arranged assassination … or was it? Intrigued, for such is my butterfly interest in such matters, I went snorkeling around in the various sources, searching for more details.

Like the character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical Pinafore, Earl Van Dorn was a very modern major general for the 19th century; a handsome cavalryman, the very beau ideal of a certain breed of Victorian male. He was accounted to be very handsome, by the standards of the time, although my personal reaction is meh; the enormous bushy soup-strainer mustache in contemporary photographs is off-putting to me, but photographic portraiture of the time really doesn’t do much in establishing the raw sexual appeal of anyone. But Van Dorn was also a charismatic and flamboyant personality, so that may account for it. He was a gallant officer in service to the Noble Cause, cutting a splendid figure in the gray and gold-hung uniform of the Confederacy … he wrote poetry, painted, was a consummate horseman … and notoriously, loved the ladies, who loved him right back. He loved them so much that he had long been known as the terror of ugly husbands and nervous papas everywhere.

He was a Regular Army officer, a heroic veteran of the war with Mexico, who had thereafter served a somewhat rewarding and satisfactory career on the Texas frontier. He was accounted to be a master of cavalry command; fearless, able, competent. He was also a great grandnephew of Andrew Jackson, being born to one of Jackson’s nieces; a place at West Point was thereby assured, although he successfully graduated 52 out of 68 places, due to use of tobacco, failure to salute superiors and extravagant use of profanity. He had several sisters who adored him, a wife whom he married after graduating from West Point – and sired two children with her, although never quite being able to establish a permanent home for his family. Whether this was due to disinclination and lack of enthusiasm on either part, or the brutal requirements of service in the military in those decades is a matter of speculation. He had mixed success as a commander in the first few years of the Civil War – a loss at Pea Ridge in a Confederate attempt to take St. Louis, another in the Second Battle of Corinth, but slashing success as a cavalry commander in fights at Holly Springs, Thompson’s Station, and the first battle at Franklin.

In the spring of 1863, Van Dorn was stationed in Spring Hill, Tennessee, thirty miles south of Nashville and almost in the dead center of the state. According to some accounts, Van Dorn and his staff were first billeted in home of local magnate Aaron White and his wife and family, but that didn’t last long. Accounts vary – some have it that Mrs. White was unhappy at having most of her home taken over as a military HQ, leaving her family with a just couple of bedrooms and access to the kitchen. She was even more unhappy – scandalized, even – when rumors began to fly about General Van Dorn’s romance with a married woman in Spring Hill. Jessie Peters was the very pretty, flirtatious, and much younger third wife of Dr. George Peters, who very openly came to visit the General at the White residence – a considerable breach of Victorian etiquette. Mr. and Mrs. White were not pleased at this scandalous turn of events. At about this time, Van Dorn moved his headquarters to another residence in Spring Hill, the mansion owned by one Martin Cheairs, about half a mile distant. (Both houses still stand, apparently.)

George Peters was a wealthy landowner and politician, a doctor, and often gone on business for long periods of time, leaving his young wife to find her own amusements, domestic and otherwise. It was also rumored that he was of Union sympathies, but nevertheless, upon his return to Spring Hill in early April, 1863 Dr. Peters became aware of the rumors concerning his wife and General Van Dorn, the long unchaperoned carriage rides they went on together, and the General’s many visits to the Peters home. To say the very least, Dr. Peters was not pleased, especially after he caught his wife and the General in a passionate embrace. Angry words were exchanged; George Peters threatened to shoot Van Dorn then and there. Supposedly Van Dorn asked for forgiveness and took the blame for the affair all to himself … and the matter seemed to be smoothed over.

But two or three weeks later, Dr. Peters appeared at the Cheairs house, asking to speak to General Van Dorn. Assuming that he wanted another permit allowing him to pass through the Confederate lines, he was directed into the study where Van Dorn sat at his writing desk, hard at work. Dr. Peters pulled out a pistol and shot Van Dorn in the back of the head. No one among the general’s staff took notice of Dr. Peters’ swift departure – not until the young daughter of the Cheairs family ran out of the house, exclaiming that the General had been shot. Of course, everyone rushed into the study, where they found Van Dorn unconscious, but still breathing. He died hours later, much mourned across the South, although there seemed to have been many who considered that he had brought it upon himself with his reckless pursuit of women captivated by his personal appeal.
Eventually, Dr. Peters was apprehended and arrested for the murder, but curiously, never tried. He insisted that Van Dorn had, in his words, “violated the sanctity of his home.” Most everyone then and since assumed that it meant Van Dorn’s affair with Jessie Peters. But was it? A novel by another indy author, also fascinated by the conundrum and possessed of certain local-specific resources, suggests that the motive for murder was not simply Van Dorn’s affair with Jessie Peters but his seduction of Clara Peters, Dr. Peter’s unmarried teenage daughter from an earlier marriage … a doubly scandalous matter which resulted in Clara Peters being pregnant.

Just another rabbit-hole in the pursuit of writing engaging historical fiction – additional evidence that our 19th century forbearers were at least as horny as humans anywhere else. They just … didn’t do it in the road and frighten the horses. Comment as you wish.

11. May 2023 · Comments Off on The Shape of Research To Come · Categories: Random Book and Media Musings

So, now that a number of items off the 2023 to-do list have been checked off, I have to apply myself sternly to the next item on the list, which is to complete the Civil War novel That Fateful Lightning. Which at this point is about half completed … the half remaining though, is about Miss Minnie Vining’s journey through the Civil War as a battlefield nurse, after the previous decade and a half as an Abolitionist campaigner.

I have been reminded once again, how small was the circle of intellectuals and campaigners for the Abolitionist cause, especially when it came to the female personalities. They all knew each other, or at one or two connections removed, and many of them continued in various other causes – notably for the rights of women with regard to legal matters and the vote. So, now the deep, deep dive into the American Civil War; on one side, Shelby Foote’s massive three-volume history, a fair number of Bruce Catton’s books that I have on hand (since my mother had an abiding interest in the Civil War and had nearly all of his books) a volume of Alexander Gardner’s photographs, and sixteen or seventeen of the Time Life series on the war, which is useful to me for the pictures more than the scholarship involved. I need to be able to visualize scenes, places, and people. My father once asked me how I went about describing a scene, and I told him it was almost like building a miniature set, only I built it in my mind: picturing the room, the place, the people in it, how the sunlight poured through the windows, what they could see from those windows, imagining the way that the place smelled, the little details of dust, sounds from outside,  and small things in the corners.

So, I need to be able to build a picture in my mind of the characters; how they would have moved, spoken and the words they used, acted towards each other. I won’t go much into the battles and personalities of all the ‘big’ players of the war – it’s just the little hints, details and insights that I am snorkling after. Like the death of Elmer Ellsworth, the first officer to be killed in the war – taking down a Confederate flag from a building in Alexandria, just across the Potomac from Washington. He was a handsome man, a minor celebrity and personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. (Huh – Sam Houston once described Jefferson Davis as ‘ambitious as Lucifer and cold as a lizard’. Not that this will have a bearing on the story, but that Sam Houston found Davis to be a ‘dislikable man’ … interesting.) And Lincoln himself was so very much the odd fish, as a president; scorned as ignorant backwoods, uncouth yokel, a hick from the sticks, who didn’t understand how things were properly done in the ruling chambers and corridors of power among those who were bred and educated suitably to rule… hmm. The contemporary political cartoons lampooning him, and the editorials about him were positively vicious, especially in the European newspapers. The English magazine Punch was especially poisonous. I’ve wondered if the viciousness was precisely because he proved to be a better and more able man than he appeared at superficial glance and the carpers and cartoonists were embarrassed by their inability to see this. I’ve already written a scene where Miss Minnie meets him and is wholly charmed.

But a lot of the details I am after, aren’t in the significant histories of the war itself – they’ll be buried in the memoirs of various women and men who volunteered for the Sanitary Commission in various capacities, especially the women who were moved to volunteer as front-line nurses and after the war was done, wrote about their experiences. Fortunate I am that a lot of them were available online – including one that I am still pursuing, since it gives me the personal link between the Bostonian Minnie Vining and the Chicagoan Mary Bickerdyke … who was apparently an irresistible force to be reckoned with; WT Sherman allowed that Mary Bickerdyke outranked him, in the general scheme of things. My general plot has Minnie joining up with Mary Bickerdyke, and the Union Army in the west.

The specific plot depends on what I discover in this. Pray for me as I venture forth…

29. March 2023 · Comments Off on Scam Spam Man · Categories: Random Book and Media Musings

Just this morning, my daughter and I both got sloppily-misspelled text messages on our phone about our Netflix accounts being suspended because of a problem with billing … spam, of course. The links in such messages are intended to do nasty things to your phone, if clicked upon by the unwary. We’ve been getting quite of few of these messages – alleged to be from Bank of America, PayPal, Amazon, and no, the completely illiteracy of the message makes it screamingly obvious that they are just another spam scam.

Like the email spam messages which eventually completely swamped functional email addresses back in the day, such messages are cheap enough to generate, as long as that one in a million profitable and gullible sucker bites on it. There was a frustrated blogger back then who wished profoundly that they could track down that one in a million person who bit on a spam message and lost their shirt, slap them silly for being such a gullible idiot and making it all profitable for the scammers. It’s the one person in a million who makes it all profitable for a spam scammer … and yes, I’d like to see them slapped silly, for unleashing the spam scammer annoyance on the rest of us.

Just as my daughter and I have gotten ruthless with the romance scammers who infest social media like carpenter ants or termites. Some Instagram accounts that my daughter follows, mostly because the account holders are funny and amusing and have interesting posts – one ‘like’ and seven or eight scammers – usually with names which don’t follow the Western pattern, pictures cribbed from somewhere else and a whole lot of unrelated quotes about romance and God – are zeroing in on her own account. It’s not quite that bad for my own FB page, since I have gotten pretty shrewd about considering ‘friend requests’ – look, guy, if you claim to be a widower of a certain age, highly-educated, perhaps serving in the military, and stationed in some exotic locale, yet there is only a banner heading and a single picture of you on your account, I am deleting your friend request.

I suppose that the most insulting thing is that the Spam Scammers, and the Romance Scammers don’t even try very hard. You know, like being able to spell, figure out conventional Western name conventions, and post a hella lot more pictures on their fake profiles. But then, they might be more effective … So carry on, Spam Scammers – as you were, illiterate in English and all… but if you could let us all know who that one person in a million who falls for your not-terribly-convincing text… Oh no reason at all. Really.

13. March 2023 · Comments Off on Just a Heads-Up! · Categories: Old West, Random Book and Media Musings

The next installment of the Lone Star series is done – the further adventures of Texas Ranger James Reade and his blood-brother, Toby Shaw of the Delaware – Yes, it’s titled Lone Star Blood, and will be launched in print and ebook by the end of this month! Yay, me! Another item checked off my yearly to-do list! One of the short adventures was published last year in the anthology volume Tales Around the Supper Table Vol. Two! I intended it as a retelling and homage of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, which at least two reviewers of the anthology considered to be a rip-off. No, it’s an homage – every excellent plot ought to be taken out for a romp in every geographical location where it might be made to fit! Anyway, my version of that adventure and four others will be available in print and ebook by the end of March, 2023.